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Richard Wagner: beautiful music, terrible human

Editorial Staff

By Matthew Parsons

Richard Wagner was the worst. I mean, the worst. In all likelihood, nobody is ever going to take the title of “most horrible person ever to write renowned classical music” away from this guy.

It’s not just that he was venomously anti-Semitic, although that maintains pride of place among his various indiscretions. He was also an inconsiderate, self-aggrandizing womanizer who never repaid his debts. It’s enough to make sitting through the four-and-a-half hours of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg just that much more painful.

Too bad he wrote so much fantastic music. Otherwise, we could all comfortably ignore him.

Check out the list below for a selection of stories about Richard Wagner being the insufferable, rude, prejudiced, entitled, egomaniacal prat that he was.

(Note: Information was assembled from Robert Gutman's Richard Wagner: The Man, His Mind, and His Music, Oliver Hilmes's Cosima Wagner: The Lady of Bayreuth and Derek Watson's Liszt.)

1. The time he amassed so much debt that he had to flee the country 

At 26, Wagner was a big spender — of other people’s money. He had big ambitions, but he had yet to produce a single successful piece of music. So, in order to maintain his lavish lifestyle, he borrowed, and borrowed, and borrowed. When his creditors finally started closing in, Wagner hightailed it out of Latvia, illegally crossing the Prussian border and harassing a ship’s captain into smuggling him to Norway. You’ve at least got to admire his sense of adventure.

(Source: Gutman, 62-65)

2. The time he denied his audience their rightful intermissions

When Wagner first wrote The Flying Dutchman, he wrote it in one, massively overstuffed act. Mercifully, he also penned a three-act version of the opera that gave the audience not just one but two opportunities to go to the bathroom and grab a stein of Reinheitsgebot-approved beer. (Google it.)

Unfortunately, Wagner stipulated that his personal preference was for the one-act version. Since then, legions of purist directors have forced their audiences to hold their pee for two-and-a-half hours because that’s how Wagner wanted it.


3. The time he got exiled for trying to lobby the Bavarian government

In later life, Wagner was rescued from financial ruin by King Ludwig II of Bavaria. Ludwig was an impressionable 18-year-old at the time, and he was completely taken in by Wagner’s self-aggrandizement. He gave Wagner a fancy house in Munich and a fat salary. Wagner took this as an invitation to try and influence policy in Bavaria, to the chagrin of Ludwig’s cabinet ministers. Wagner finally crossed the line when he demanded that Ludwig sack two of his most trusted advisers. Ludwig exiled Wagner to Geneva. Seriously, who did this guy think he was?

(Source: Gutman, 256-263)

4. The time he stole his devoted friend/colleague’s wife

The conductor Hans von Bülow was probably Wagner’s best friend in the world, whether Wagner knew it or not. Bülow tirelessly championed Wagner’s works, even when audiences weren't sure. And Wagner thanked him by stealing his wife. Cosima von Bülow (born Francesca Gaetana Cosima Liszt) divorced her husband for Wagner after carrying on a hugely indiscreet affair with him for several years. Bülow didn’t protest, but he also never spoke to Wagner again. Come to think of it, that probably improved his quality of life significantly.

(Source: Hilmes, 112-118)

5. The time he didn't tell his future father-in-law about the wedding

When Wagner and Liszt got married, her father (the composer Franz Liszt) had no idea it was happening, in spite of the fact that he and Wagner had known each other for years. He read about his daughter’s wedding in a newspaper, several days after the fact. Frankly, this is a strike against Wagner and Cosima, both.

(Source: Watson, 146)

6. The time he cheated on the wife that he stole

After all of the trouble that he caused in breaking up Cosima and Hans von Bülow’s marriage, Wagner didn’t even have the decency to remain faithful to his new wife. He is known to have had an affair with the French poet Judith Gautier, and there may have been others. Nobody’s entirely sure if Cosima knew. But it’s only one of many reasons he deserved to be kicked in the groin.

(Source: Hilmes 137)

7. The time he designed the world’s least comfortable opera house

Wagner had the Bayreuth Festival House built to his exacting specifications. He had thoughts on the design of the orchestra pit, the stage, the resonance of the hall — but one thing that apparently didn’t matter to Wagner at all was the audience’s comfort and convenience. The signage that leads people to their seats is incomprehensible. The seats in the hall are so infamously uncomfortable that people have taken to bringing their own cushions. And there’s no ventilation, lest it hamper the perfect acoustics. The annual opera festival that’s held there takes place at the hottest time of year. So, you can imagine how rank the place smells by the end of Parsifal.


8. The time he wrote a pamphlet called 'Jewishness in Music'

This one goes well beyond casual jerkishness. Wagner was infamously anti-Semitic. This 1850 essay is one of the most enraging things anybody has ever written, and it has justly led to Wagner’s current image as the most problematic figure of all the big-ticket composers.


9. The time he embarked upon a lifelong smear campaign against Meyerbeer

Here’s another instance of Wagner being cruel to somebody who did him a lot of favours. The hugely successful opera composer Giacomo Meyerbeer used his influence to get some of the young Wagner’s early works staged. Once Wagner found his feet professionally, he responded by writing a series of vicious screeds against Meyerbeer’s music. Wagner’s hatred for Meyerbeer was probably partly because he was Jewish. But it could just have easily been because Meyerbeer denied him a loan, one time.


10. The time his descendants turned out to be Nazis

OK, we can’t hold Wagner completely accountable for the way that his kids turned out. But the legacy of his anti-Semitism is probably partially to blame for the fact that, when Hitler came to power, the Wagner family was vocally on Hitler's side. Wagner’s son, Siegfried, and his wife, Winifred, were close friends of the dictator, and their children grew up referring to Hitler as “Uncle Wolfie.” Let that one haunt your dreams for a while. It’s only very recently that members of the Wagner family are breaking the silence about their forebears’ troubling ties to the Nazi Party.


11. The time he refused to make cuts to Meistersinger

I'm sorry, but four-and-a-half hours is just too long.